Stop-go saving the plant

The government needs to follow London's example and make going green affordable

If you have ever fancied the idea of getting a government grant to help you put a wind turbine, solar panel or wood-burning stove in your house, then by the time you read this it will probably be too late – for this month at least.

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme was set up by the DTI last year to boost the take-up of renewable energy technologies on houses and community buildings, by giving away grants of up to 50 percent towards the cost of installation. £80 million was committed to the programme in total, but initially just £6.5 million to the household part of the scheme, and this was tapered over three years to stop in 2009.

Even without being properly promoted, the LCBP grants have already proved much more popular than funds allowed. When the £3.5m originally set aside for 2006/7 ran out after just six months at the end of October, the then Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, responded by shifting another £6.2 million into the household pot from elsewhere in the programme.

Despite howls from the renewable energy industry, who had already suffered a hiatus of several months at the start of the year while thrifty householders bided their time between the end of the previous ‘Clear Skies’ scheme and the start of the LCBP, the DTI decided to divide the new money into monthly rations. They said the move was to make sure the grants lasted to the end of the scheme, but it has proved a disastrous strategy.

With just half a million pounds to go around each month, the money ran out on 20 December, 12 January and then, last month, applicants logging onto the LCBP website were told to ‘try again next time’ before noon on the first day of February.

So, we’re predicting even worse this month, and the Greens have issued a plea to the government to boost the fund for March and then do something to sort out some real incentives for renewable power in the budget in three weeks’ time. My previous blog about the benefits of feed-in tariffs shows how the pay-back period for renewables can be dramatically cut, but making it possible for ordinary households to afford the up-front costs is just as important - if it isn’t going to be only the rich few taking advantage of the benefits.

The German government has got the right mix of policies – as well as setting feed-in tariffs, low cost loans are being handed out at the rate of more than a billion pounds a year. If we can create a scheme to force unwilling students to take out index-linked loans to pay for their education, we can certainly organise something similar to help the millions of willing people out there save the planet.

All this thrashing around by central government is in sharp contrast to our regional government here in London. Greens are so impressed with Mayor Ken Livingstone’s new Climate Change Action Plan that I took part in the press launch this Tuesday and even wrote a foreword for the 232-page document.

The plan aims to cut London’s emissions by 20 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2025. Many smaller measures, such as switching off lights or powering the tube with renewable energy, will contribute to these reductions.

But my two favourite ideas will also bring some of the biggest reductions. The first is decentralising our energy supply, so that a quarter of our electricity is moved off the national grid in 20 years’ time. The second is a crash programme of home insulation, lining lofts and filling the millions of cavity walls still losing heat throughout the capital.

This will be provided cut-price to everyone and completely free to pensioners and people on benefits. The average household will not only be much greener, but will also save £300 per year on its bills.

Of course, the Green Party would be keen on the plan, seeing as most of the measures in it have been prompted by our London Assembly members’ work with the Mayor.

Since 2004, they have used their voting clout over the Mayor’s annual budget to add more and more green measures to his plans, so that this year more than £150 million will be spent on things to help Londoners live more lightly on the planet, and most of these things are key parts of the action plan.

It’s very appropriate that London should be the city taking the lead on this. We are one of the most vulnerable cities to climate change worldwide, with nearly a million of us already living below high tide level, and the Thames Barrier is being raised more often than ever before.

A year before hurricane Katrina, Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist warned that, ‘cities like London, New York and New Orleans would be the first to go’ as the world warms up.

However, there is a big hole running right through the London action plan – and it’s labeled ‘central government action’. There’s only so much Londoners can do on our own and, to achieve the 60 percent cuts science tells us we need by 2025, a further 13 million tonnes a year needs to be saved with measures we don’t control.

Aviation already causes 34 percent of London’s total emissions (and that’s just counting the planes that take off from City and Heathrow airports, not the flights home or any that go from Gatwick or Stansted) so without a national change of heart on airport expansion, we will never make the targets.

Similarly, measures to encourage behaviour change, get us into cleaner cars and bring us cleaner electricity can only go so far without the same kind of vision from national government. Over to you, Gordon – we’re waiting!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.